Elephant Seal News

For young elephant seals, it's a time for relaxation

Special to The CambrianAugust 21, 2013 

It’s the time of year for male elephant seals to head back to the North Pacific.

COURTESY PHOTO

August is a transition period at the Piedras Blancas elephant seal viewing site. Some adult males may still be on the beaches, finishing their annual molt, when they grow new skin and hair and shed the old layer.

These males are the last age group to molt in the round-robin process that brings different ages to the beach in different months throughout the summer. The big males are leaving, one by one, to head north again on their long round-trip migration to forage in the north Pacific, mostly in Alaska waters, bulking up for months of fasting when they return in late November and early December to begin the birthing and breeding season.

As they leave, a new chapter in the migration pattern has begun. We call it the fall haul-out. Young elephant seals, males and females up to about 6 years old, are coming in from the sea to rest on the beaches for about a month. Among them are what we call “young of the year,” youngsters that were born in early winter. They have survived perilous journeys, and recent research has discovered that some of them travel as far as Alaska waters their first year at sea.

Researchers have sought to discover why these juvenile seals come in because there seems to be no good reason, as there is in the birthing, breeding and molting seasons. It appears to be a resting time, but it may also serve as a time for their bodies to strengthen their bones. While they are at sea for months at a time, they are almost weightless, and scientists suggested that, like astronauts, they may lose bone mass. Researchers did MRI tests on some of these young seals when they first came in during the fall and again just before they left and they found that the seals did gain bone mass while getting gravity back and making weight-bearing movements on the beach.

Another theory about the fall haul-out is that it gets these juvenile seals into the migrating and fasting pattern that will bring them back to the rookery for the birthing and mating season later in their lives.

During this fall haul-out, some of the seals play in the water or with each other now and then, but for the most part they are conserving energy because they are fasting during their monthlong beach vacation. The seals that are playing are young males, playfighting as they practice for the real challenges they will face as adult males. These playfights are one way of recognizing the males in the group. When they are this young, it isn’t easy to tell the males from the females because the males have not yet developed the proboscis that gives elephant seals their name. When he is about 4 or 5, a male develops a little pointy rat-like nose that will broaden out in the next few years and eventually become a trunklike appendage when he matures. The females will always have sweet, doglike faces.

While the seals rest, Friends of the Elephant Seal’s volunteer docent guides are gearing up for training sessions for new docents. Interested applicants should call (805) 924-1628 or visit www.elephantseal.org to apply online or email fes@elephantseal.org before the Sept. 1 deadline to set up an interview. Training sessions will be held Sept. 14 for an overview, and a three-day in-depth educational program will be presented Oct. 12, 19 and 26.

Fund will support friends of the elephant seal

Brandt Kehoe, president of the board of Friends of the Elephant Seal, and Barry VanderKelen, executive director of the Community Foundation San Luis Obispo County, have signed an agreement to establish an Endowment Fund through The Community Foundation. The nonprofit foundation will manage the fund’s assets. Organized to receive gifts of cash, property, stocks and other negotiable instruments, the fund will offer a range of tax-deductible opportunities for donations.

The Community Foundation has distributed nearly $22 million worth of grants countywide. More than 300 funds, scholarships and awards have been established through the foundation.

The purpose of the fund is to support the programs, activities and operations of Friends of the Elephant Seal, a nonprofit organization. Earnings from the fund will be used by FES to meet the needs of future operations of FES while the principal of the fund remains untouched. These earnings will support ecological, educational and scientific aspects of the Piedras Blancas elephant seal colony, including the volunteer docent program and scientific research on the seals.

Donovan Marley, head of the Friends membership campaign, says, “We hope to offer our Friends an added opportunity to support the activities of FES in perpetuity through gifts to the Endowment Fund. These can take the form of Estate Bequests and tax-advantaged gifts such as Charitable Remainder Trusts.”

Joan Crowder is a volunteer docent guide for Friends of the Elephant Seal, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating people about elephant seals and promoting respect for the marine environment.

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